J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, March 12, 2010

“Distinction of ye. different ranks of ye. Officers”

Just because a commander issues orders, as I’ve quoted Gen. George Washington doing over the past two days, that doesn’t mean everyone in the army follows them. They might not be able to, for one thing.

Did all the officers of the Continental Army besieging Boston rush to put different colors of cockades in their hats? Did they train all sentries in how to recognize the different ranks of generals and aides-de-camp? All we can say for sure is that the word of the insignia went out in the general orders.

And got fairly widely disseminated. Schoolboy Joshua Green, whose family had left Boston for Westfield, wrote this in his almanac opposite the page for July 1775:

Distinction of ye. different ranks of ye. Officers in ye. Continental Army undr. Genl. Washington.

For ye. General a black cockade & a broad scarlet ribbon from ye. left shoulder to ye. right hip but being under ye. coat is seen only across his breast.

Major General a blk cockade wth. a purple ribbon as above.

Aid de camps, a blue.

Colo:, Lt: Colo:, & Major a scarlet cockade.

Captains a yellow cockade.

First & Secd: Lieuts: a green
Joshua’s notes weren’t accurate for the generals’ ribbands, and he left out the brigadier rank entirely. But he got the cockade colors for junior officers correct, and we can take “scarlet” to mean colonels and majors were seeking out something brighter than just “red or pink.”

Another observer who tried to record the system was Benjamin Thompson (shown above). In November 1775, he had sailed into British-occupied Boston from Newport after months of hanging around behind the American lines. He sat down to summarize all the intelligence he had gathered, including:
The marks of distinction among them are as follows, viz.:—The Commander-in-Chief wears a wide blue ribbon between his coat and waistcoat, over the right shoulder and across the breast; Major Generals a pink ribbon in the same manner; Brigadier Generals a [blank] ribbon; and all Aids-du-camp a green one; all Field Officers wear red, pink, or scarlet cockades; Captains, yellow or buff cockades; and Subalterns, green ones.
Even Thompson couldn’t remember that special distinction between major and brigadier generals.

TOMORROW: And how did the system work when it came time for a battle?

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